Support for the Woolworth Building

August 29, 2019 Blog, Historic Districts, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 234

Late last year, the Conservation Society joined together with several other organizations to form the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, the 1921 structure at Alamo and Houston Streets that was the first Woolworth’s lunch counter to integrate peacefully and voluntarily during the sit-in movement of 1960. I wrote about the Coalition earlier this year HERE.

Last year the City turned the whole project over to the State of Texas, owner of the Woolworth, Palace and Crockett buildings since 2015. For four years we have advocated a plan that would incorporate the buildings into the new Alamo museum. Recently that plan was endorsed by the Society of Architectural Historians.

Notice the North Wall, critical in the 1836 battle, remains under buildings.

We decided to envision what the 1921 Woolworth Building and its neighbor the 1882 Crockett Building would look like as part of the new museum. We hired an architect. We called it the compromise plan because we gave up on a bunch of issues we fought for last summer, like fencing the plaza, closing the streets, moving the Cenotaph and even preserving the 1926 Palace Building.

The plan envisions a reveal of the location of the west wall of the Alamo compound INSIDE the existing buildings. Elimination of the Palace Building simplifies the problem of misaligned floorplates, and a large addition behind and above the Crockett and Woolworth provides the 130,000 square feet the Alamo desires.

Most importantly, the plan maintains the integrity of century-old buildings and allows the interpretation of the Mission period, the 1836 battle, and the 1960 Civil Rights movement. This makes the site appeal to more tourists.

Recently the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, which includes our San Antonio NAACP chapter, West Side Preservation Alliance, San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum, SAGE, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and others, noted that it will also be a draw for Civil Rights tourism, a rare growth area in the museum industry. (See my blog on this topic a couple months ago HERE.)

The lunch counter is gone, but the entrance remains.

Plus, it retains authentic historic fabric rather than removing it for a location of a wall that is entirely gone. The buildings have basements.

The location of the west wall revealed – in the shade!

Sadly, and despite the multiple concessions we made to our earlier position (and 7,000+ petitions!) the Alamo dissed our plan. They said – as I predicted 364 days ago HERE – that the lunch counter story could be told at one of the other lunch counters that also integrated on March 16, 1960.

This was painted in 2018 – we have not forgotten

When Jet magazine decided to honor Mary Lilian Andrews, the 17-year old Our Lady of the Lake college student who wrote the letters asking the downtown lunch counters to integrate, they photographed her in Woolworth’s.

Woolworth’s was the symbol of the Sit-In movement. Yesterday (September 30 UPDATE) on CBS TV news Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch chose his four favorite artifacts from the Smithsonian’s 19 museums: that is from 11 million historical items. One of the four was the Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro.

When the Woolworth’s in San Antonio closed in 1997, its loss was widely lamented. Not so for Neisner’s, H.L. Green’s, Grant’s, Kress, or Sommers. When you think of the sit-in movement, you think of Woolworth’s, where it began. San Antonians remember the big glazed donuts at Woolworth’s because it was the intersection of two main streets and multiple bus lines.

Woolworth’s in 1981, courtesy San Antonio Conservation Society Foundation.

It was the place and it remains the best place to interpret the sit-in movement’s unique exegesis in San Antonio. It is also a fine place to interpret the long history of the Alamo. This is the message the Coalition is sending to Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Governor Abbott, and the Alamo Trust. Learn more on the Conservation Society website!

Continue Reading

Big Week for the Woolworth Building

May 17, 2019 History, Interpretation, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 226

A week ago the Texas Historical Commission voted unanimously to designate the Woolworth Building in San Antonio as a State Antiquities Landmark. While no landmark designation can absolutely prevent demolition, this status is significant. More importantly, unlike the earlier designations (National Register and City) this nomination included a detailed discussion of the civil rights history of the site.

2018 Mural of 1960 Woolworth’s in Hemisfair Park

The big week began on Tuesday, when the San Antonio Conservation Society, joined by the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, released a compromise plan that would wall off Alamo Plaza and expose the location of the mission’s west wall – while preserving the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings. The event got good coverage in print and television and even radio!

One of the ironies of the decades-old attempt to reveal the site of the western wall is that the northern wall – beneath the Post Office and Gibbs Building – was more significant in the 1836 battle. This is where Santa Anna broke through and this is where commanding officer Lt. Col. Travis fell.

No remains of the western wall survive – not only were the walls destroyed after the 1836 battle, but the Crockett Block buildings have full basements, which eliminates any remnant of 17th century foundations (unless the Franciscans were sinking 14-foot deep footings).

Our plan preserves the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings while adding a large 4-story addition to the rear to achieve the stated goal of a 130,000 square foot museum. We also carve an arcade through the buildings to reveal where the wall was. This provides a “teaser” for the exhibits inside, which can include in the Woolworth site both the Castañeda and Treviño houses along the wall, as well as the Woolworth lunch counter site.

Unlike the Conservation Society’s earlier position, the fences and walls enclosing the plaza are illustrated in this plan. Moreover, the Palace theater facade is removed to allow for a grand entrance to the new museum. This displeases some preservationists.

The Alamo management (the buildings have been owned by the Texas General Land Office since 2015) dismissed our effort to share a vision that includes BOTH a new museum and enclosed plaza AND preserved landmarks. As I said to a reporter following the press conference – you can walk along the line of the wall and when you reach the Woolworth interior, you can turn right and learn about the battle, then turn left and learn about the lunch counter integration.

You can have both! See my earlier blogs on this subject here and here and here.

We have been advocating for the Woolworth Building since 2015 and it was a rewarding week thanks to the efforts of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, who participated in both the press conference and the trip to Austin for State Antiquities Landmark designation!

Continue Reading

This is Fiesta: San Antonio’s Cultural Heritage

April 22, 2019 Blog, Historic Districts, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation Comments (1) 346

If you have to ask…A Night In Old San Antonio®, the premier Fiesta event, shown in 2017.

New Orleans has Mardi Gras, Rio has Carneval, Ahmedabad has Utturayan and San Antonio has Fiesta. It is part of the city’s intangible cultural heritage, a parade that culminated in a “Battle of Flowers,” a European pageant suggested by a Chicago Presbyterian minister back in 1891.

The parade soon became an elaborate and fantastical depiction of social rank with an elaborate collection of self-styled royal courts where the high and mighty families dressed up in themed fantasies and young women debuted in five-figure gowns as the “Duchess of Harmonious Elegance” or “Princess of Perceived Coordination” or whatever and now this tradition has been going on for over 120 years. Heck, “Cornyation,” which makes fun of this, is itself at least 60 years old and has a book about it.

Me and my medals. More on back.

Then there are the medals. Everyone has a medal for sale, even McDonald’s. You sell them, trade them, give them out and compete with other medals. They represent causes and organizations and businesses and politicians and individuals. Even if you don’t try, you will still end up with three dozen of them and you need a sash to carry them all. We all end of looking like South American generals by late April.

NIOSA medal design unveiling, 2019. Do you know of another city where medals are an integral part of life?
We don’t have generals but we do have Kings, and they have royal retinues.

We have Kings. The Texas Cavaliers crowned the first King Antonio in 1927, and this group of business leaders found competition 21 years later when the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce crowned the Ugly King – Rey Feo. Now the two Kings get along fine and compete simply to raise money for children’s causes and scholarships respectively.

Parade to the King’s Party, San Antonio Conservation Society Board members, 2018.

There are over 100 official Fiesta events, It’s a “party with a purpose” and its signature event is A Night In Old San Antonio®, now in its 71st year. This is our event, which began about 1936 as a Fall Harvest Festival down by Mission San Jose. By the early 1940s it became a downtown Riverwalk event and at the City’s insistence, we moved it up into La Villita in 1948.

It now runs four nights – a total of 20 hours. It utilizes the talents of over 10,000 volunteers to provide food, drink, music, crafts and fun to over 80,000 guests. It raises money for conservation in La Villita and throughout San Antonio. We have 5 year-round full-time staff, two downtown buildings including a commercial kitchen and 18,000 square feet of warehouse just for this four-day event.

La Villita is a nice site for it, because it is full of old buildings and gets very crowded, which is part of the appeal of NIOSA!

Oh yes, and we have volunteers who meet every Thursday morning year-round to make paper flowers and cascarones for the event,

Cascarones? Those are confetti-stuffed eggshells that you crack over your friends’ heads during FIESTA. You can buy them at the local grocery store, just like the medals. For NIOSA® we make our own – about 50,000 each year.

The origin of the cascaron is actually Chinese.

Fiesta as a whole features several major parades, several multi-day fundraisers with food and drink and music, and a huge collection of official receptions, dinners and ceremonies. 100 events. Everyone decorates their house with flower wreaths, papel picado banners, and all manner of colorful acoutrements.

There is nothing like this in any other city that I know of.

It may not have the fame or cachet of Carnival or Mardi Gras, but I love its intricacies, particulars, flights of fancy and aged authenticities. Fiesta is San Antonio’s cultural heritage.

1975.

Y’all come visit NIOSA® this week, ya hear?

Continue Reading

Civil Rights Tourism

April 16, 2019 Blog, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 329

“The U.S. Civil Rights Trail was designed to motivate people to learn more, see more and feel more. The website can tell the stories, but the emotional weight of those stories cannot be fully absorbed without standing in the exact spots where sacrifices were made and the direction of history was changed.”

Howard University, Washington, D.C.

The Civil Rights Trail combines sites that have been significant in the battle for Civil Rights, especially the 1950s and 1960s. Launched in January, 2018, the Trail includes over 100 sites in 14 states. Given the incredible popular success of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the fact that Civil Rights tourism is a growth sector demanding honest history, the identification and interpretation of such sites promises to be an economic boon to communities where these resources are located.

Display in National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D C

The National Civil Rights Trail includes over 100 sites in 14 states, but none in Texas, although Dallas has developed its own Civil Rights Trail. The opportunity is great: a $63bn industry.

In San Antonio, we have the story of the first voluntary and peaceful integration of a Woolworth’s lunch counter on March 16, 1960, a story that Jackie Robinson said “should be told around the world.” He was quoted in the New York Times on March 20, 1960, but the story did not have the “legs” of the more confrontational protests in other cities.

2018 San Antonio Tricentennial mural at Hemisfair. From a March 16, 1960 photograph of a young man looking into Woolworth’s

In addition to Woolworth’s the sites of the Kress, H.L. Green, Grant’s, Sommers and Neisner’s stores survive, sans lunch counters. The beginnings of a Civil Rights trail are right in front of us, although the concern is that at least two of these could disappear soon.

Kress Building, Houston Street, San Antonio

Thanks to local landscape architect and historian Everett Fly, more overlooked sites in San Antonio are now being uncovered. You could see markers for the Rincon School near the River Walk, but Fly’s work has really illuminated the importance of downtown – notably Alamo Plaza, in a struggle for equal rights that goes back to the early 1880s.

African American barbers plied their trade at the Menger Hotel, and an African American owned a cleaning shop at the rear. Across the street, Joske’s Store was built on the site of an 1860s slave market. In 1960, Joske’s resisted integration as seven other downtown stores adopted equal serving policies.
This was H.L. Green’s, another lunch counter that integrated that day. It is a block south of Woolworth’s and across from the Menger.

The challenge now is to bundle these sites – and many more, into a package that can attract tourist investment. In San Antonio we already have the largest Martin Luther King Day march, active contingents of Buffalo Soldier interpreters, and Everett Fly’s impressive research into African American cemeteries.

Buffalo soldiers at Rodeo Parade

The opportunity is there. The question is: Do we embrace it?

Continue Reading

Both And

February 25, 2019 Blog, Interpretation, Technology, Texas, Vision and Style Comments (0) 320

Paper or plastic?

For years we have been offered this choice at the supermarket checkout, and it annoys me. Why can’t I have both? I sometimes reply “Some of each,” which confuses people. But I actually have some need for plastic and some for paper. I’m NOT one or the other.

Paper in plastic.

Our “polarized” 2019 world has been caused by many such false choices – politically and otherwise – between categories that seem to exclude each other. But they don’t. Making the categories more extreme (i.e., you are either Communist or Fascist) makes the duality seem real. It’s not.

YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE A SIDE!

Let’s leave the hoary hoardings of the politicalifragilistic to one side and remain in our expertise: architectural history and preservation. 13 years ago in this blog I celebrated a debate which I witnessed several times between modernist Paul Byard and classicist Steven Semes (who is a good friend) on the appropriate way to design additions to historic buildings. Byard, who has since passed away, advocated modernist additions while Semes has written a book arguing for contextual additions. The debate was AWESOME because each speaker was so convincing you actually suspended your own bias and wandered back and forth between the camps.

The debate and the dichotomy struck me yesterday as I visited the San Antonio Museum of Art, a late Victorian building with two contemporary additions.

Paper.
Plastic.

One satisfies the contextualists, and one uses contemporary materials to distinguish itself from the original. Both defer to the original building in scale, massing and setback. If you are sensitive to brick color and the patina of time, both read clearly as additions. I like them BOTH.

SAMA has both MODERNIST and CONTEXTUAL additions. Or perhaps I should say SAMA has BOTH Modernist AND Contextual additions.

And where does Art Nouveau stained glass fit into your philosophy, Horatio?

BOTH AND is the actual dynamic state of the world. The binaries and categories we use to make sense of this world are intellectual constructs that negate a major physical reality: Time.

A thing now does not equal a thing ten years from now. This is manifest at the quantum level but it is also true up here in the everyday. Styles change, technologies change, and materials age, each at their own rate.

King James Bible, 1611. Words and language change as well.

There are continuities, of course, and indeed the task of heritage conservation is about maintaining continuities amid change. To do that job, you need to see things as they are, not as you would have them be. You need to understand BOTH now AND then.

The dynamic nature of experience and existence belies clumsy categorizations. We, and our work, are always in the process of becoming.

I explained this better in my 2012 blog: Categories are your Frenemies.

Continue Reading

Coalition for the Woolworth Building

January 29, 2019 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (1) 410

San Antonio Woolworth Building, built 1921. The first voluntary, peaceful integration of a Woolworth’s lunch counter happened here March 16, 1960.

San Antonio has a unique history in the Civil Rights movement, but it is not known because it is characterized not by conflict, but by its absence. The tradition continues to this day with the nation’s largest Martin Luther King Day March. Approximately 300,000 participants annually.

They even saw our sign in Hawaii!!!

This year, a new Coalition for the Woolworth Building participated in the march and had an information booth in the park afterwards. The Conservation Society is a member along with the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum and Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, among others.

As the banner notes, what happened in San Antonio in 1960 was different.

The most prominent corner in San Antonio – the intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets.
  • February 1, 1960 – four students stage a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Protests and violent reactions pepper the nation in the following weeks.
  • March, 1960 – OLLU student and NAACP member Mary Andrews sends letters to downtown lunch counters requesting equal service. NAACP holds rally Sunday March 13 and asks for desegregation by Thursday March 17.
  • On Tuesday, March 15 civic, religious and business leaders meet and agree to desegregate Woolworth’s and six other lunch counters.
  • Wednesday, March 16, 1960. Photographers descend on Woolworth’s in San Antonio as blacks and whites are served equally at the basement cafeteria and lunch counter
  • March 19, 1960. Jackie Robinson calls the voluntary integration “a story that should be told around the world” and compares it to his integration of Major League baseball in a Page 1 New York Times story
Integration at Woolworth’s, March 16, 1960. Courtesy UTSA Special Collections.

There were places – Corpus Christi, Oklahoma City, that integrated their ,lunch counters earlier, but only following protests and confict. San Antonio proceeded differently.

Susan Beavin and Nettie Hinton of the Coalition for the Woolworth Building, 2019.

Woolworth’s location gave it special significance. Nettie Hinton recalls buying the “big donuts” at Woolworth’s prior to catching the bus to the African-American East Side. Indeed, the corner of Alamo and Houston was where the cultures of San Antonio met and separated – Hispanics to the west, African Americans to the east, and Anglos to the north.

The story is not well known, despite Jackie Robinson and the front page of the New York Times because there was no violence. The old news media saying “If it bleeds, it leads” could find no purchase in the soil of San Antonio, so the story was not “told around the world” as Robinson pleaded.

San Antonio Woolworth’s Houston Street entrance, 2019

Although it could be still! In fact, Civil Rights sites are one of the few growth areas in tourism, as reported recently. This Civil Rights site is an opportunity for San Antonio.

What’s Not There

Now, the threat to the Woolworth’s Building since 2015 has been that it sits atop the site of the west wall of the Alamo compound, potentially the site of Travis’ quarters during the epochal 1836 battle.

See the area to the left where the soldiers are swarming in? That is under the building below.
This is on top of the site of the north wall, where Travis fell and where Santa Ana broke through. A more significant location, but apparently is wasn’t for sale.

Yesterday someone said to me: “But the lunch counter is gone – there is no remnant of it.”

The same is true of the western wall and Travis’ quarters. Nothing left of them. The buildings there have basements, so it’s all gone. No remnant.

So which do you interpret?

Both, obviously. And you have tons of room inside the Woolworth Building to do that.

See my 2018 blog on the Woolworth Building here.

FEBRUARY UPDATE:

The Woolworth Building has been nominated as a State Antiquities Landmark, to be heard by the Texas Historical Commission on April 16. You can voice your support by contacting Mark Wolfe, Executive Director, Texas Historical Commission, P.O. Box 12276, Austin, TX 78711, Mark.Wolfe@thc.texas.gov

Also, check the Conservation Society website for updates!

Continue Reading

Alamo Plaza October 2018

October 23, 2018 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (0) 567

If you want to see what the Alamo Plaza plan was like exactly four months ago prior to a series of public meetings, check out my blog from June 20 here.  If you want to see what the City Council approved last week, check out my blog from June 20 here.  Not much changed, although a booklet called Alamo Plan August 2018 did address a series of the questions that came up during the public meetings and explained why things pretty much had to stay the way they were.  Like the website, the book starts on the negative, decrying all of the icky things that happen in front of the Alamo.

Always best to start with the negative..

We don’t get the POSITIVE vision for the site until after the City hands over control.  It is curious that we only are presented what Alamo Plaza shouldn’t be – the few images in the booklet are generic and uninspiring.

The Crockett, Palace and Woolworth Buildings that we have been advocating for for the last three years.  These face the Alamo chapel.  In the August 2018 book they announce they will “assess the significance and integrity according to national standards” and “assess opportunities for reuse, including how to connect multiple floor plates”.  This is the equivalent of Henry II’s plaintive wail “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

The City Council voted to lease the plaza and streets to the State of Texas for 50 years (with two 25-year extensions).  The main changes over the four months were not changes to the plan as much as changes to those opposed to the plan.  The two main parades (Battle of Flowers and Fiesta Flambeau) agreed to the new parade routes, the Citizens Advisory Committee publically approved the plan, and the Historic and Design Review Committee approved the moving of the Cenotaph, which raised the most controversy over the summer.

The new location of the Cenotaph within the plaza area was arguably the only change made to the plan itself.  They did add some new drawings commemorating the Payaya Indians who first inhabited the 1718 mission to the final presentation and book.  These added illustrations received significant commendation from the Council members for interpreting more than just the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.  So… they included the 18th century, but what about the 20th???

The Phil Collins-sponsored metal model plaques that were installed this year start with 1744, and then march to 1785, 1793, 1836, 1846, 1861 and … then stop marching at 1900.  This is the problem:  They claim to interpret 300 years of history but actually stop halfway, prior to the 20th century.  Which is when Adina de Zavala and Claire Driscoll actually saved the Alamo.  And a city happened.

Despite the casting of this summer’s plan as an “interpretive plan,” the only hints at interpretation were images of costumed interpreters and the recent hiring of a living history director.  Although they have assured me there will be 21st century museum staples like augmented reality, there is a curious fondness for the unpopular and unprofitable world of 20th century living history, which I surveyed in another recent blog.

In fairness to our city leaders, we raised a big stink about the importance of the Woolworth’s Building in Civil Rights history (see my blog here) and this was referenced in the City’s lease agreement, if not into the Alamo Plan publication.  But it can still be demolished.

That would be a missed opportunity to make money.

A recent study shows that Civil Rights tourism is one of the few categories of tourism that is growing – a new Green Book movie is coming out and the National Museum of African-American History with 2.4 million tourists has kicked off a boom in the sector.

Fine looking building – would be worth saving for architecture.  But the Civil Rights history is even more epic.

The other big issue this summer was access, a subject of our petition.  The new museum which will occupy the space (and hopefully the facades) of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings will be open 9-5 and during that time only one access point to the plaza – next to the museum – will be open to the public.

No sneaking in!!!!!

Up to six gates in the new fences surrounding the plaza will be open at other times, so that vital midnight selfie in front of the Alamo will be only a bit less convenient than today.  This element of the plan upset most of the architects and planners in town, and again, there was minimal change – more off-hours access points were added, but daytime stayed at one.

My normal time is 7 AM, although I will probably have to leave my bike outside.

So, now all the decisions will be taken by the state.  The Citizens Advisory Committee and the Historic and Design Review Commission will comment on the results of the architectural assessments, but the power lies with the General Land Office of the State of Texas.

Icky!

We can hope.  Our focus at San Antonio Conservation Society remains on the buildings.  Roads can be closed and opened.  Gates can be added and subtracted,  Fences can be erected and deconstructed.  But once you tear down these historic buildings, they are gone forever.

 

Continue Reading

Does Living History Have A Future?

September 18, 2018 Blog, Economics, House Museums, House Museums, Interpretation Comments (1) 725

In the 1950s, Colonial Williamsburg was the number one tourist attraction in the United States.  Its “living history” displays within the carefully curated town landscape were a novel attraction, and many other sites across the U.S. from Mystic Seaport to Lincoln’s New Salem followed their lead.  It was the dawn of television and big-finned automobiles: living history was hot.

That was seventy years ago.  Last year, Colonial Williamsburg reported it had lost $277 million in five years, laid off 71 staff and sold properties to avoid further hits against its endowment.  This summer it celebrated avoiding layoffs and reducing its debt to $317 million.  Conner Prairie in Indiana boasts of 11 years of breaking even after an economic debacle in the early 2000s.  Old Sturbridge Village brings in $2 million in admissions but breaks even on a $12 million budget thanks to investments, property sales, and major gifts.  Plimoth Plantation has seen ticket sales drop 30% in the last 30 years and now has a labor dispute with its suddenly unionized interpreters.  Civil War reenactments draw a fraction of the spectators they did in their 1990s heyday.  Living history is no longer hot.

Don’t get me started on the coureurs de bois

Sound management is helping Colonial Williamsburg and Sturbridge Village and Conner Prairie survive, but are they thriving?  Clever programming has some sites increasing attendance, but none are approaching the quantities of visitors found in the heyday of living history in the 20th century.  Premier sites like Colonial Williamsburg or Ironbridge Gorge in England draw half a million visitors a year.  But they used to draw twice that.  $20 million in admissions might seem like a lot until you compare it to an annual operating deficit of $50 million.

good old days in New Jersey

The advent of the Millennial generation, whose interactions with the physical world are mediated through smartphones, raises the question:  Is there a future for living history?  The demographics are worrying:  In 2012 20.5% of Americans 18-24 visited a historic site, down 8 percentage points since 2002.

with Inn four miles of Denver

Many sites have raised ticket prices to overcome declining attendance and Colonial Williamsburg is considering building a fence around the site to capture more ticket sales.  Some sites excel with school groups, but school groups rarely pay, exacerbating the economic challenge.

There are positive reports from some sites about developing more “immersive” experiences that appeal to more people.  This runs counter to the trend in house museums, where the guided tour and costumed interpreter have given place to the self-guided tour.

It isn’t simply generational – it is also technology.  For 30 years, technology has been giving individuals more control (at whatever quality) over printing, photography, navigation, communication, and determining how you spend your day.  Most tourists today expect to control their experience in a way unimaginable 30 years ago.

In the next five years we will learn whether a new generation wants to witness and interact with costumed interpreters or just keep their finger on the pulse of their smartphone.

Does Living History have a future?  And how much will it cost?

Sources and Further Reading:
“Historic Sites Face Modern Day Pressures” Virginia Gazette, September 16, 2018
“The Decline of the Civil War Re-enactor” New York Times Magazine, July 28, 2018
“Americans Declining Interest in History is Hitting Museums Like Colonial Williamsburg Hard” The Federalist, August 22, 2017.
“Colonial Williamsburg is still $317 million in debt, but things are looking up”  The Virginian Pilot September 15, 2018
“CEO: Colonial Williamsburg’s financial outlook improves; no layoffs planned.”  Daily Express, September 16, 2018
Old Sturbridge Village 2016 Annual Report
Conner Prairie 2016 Annual Report

Continue Reading

Alamo Plaza and Diversity

August 30, 2018 Blog, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (2) 1898

This year I published a chapter called “Addressing the Diversity Deficit: Reform the National Register of Historic Places” in a book called Creating Historic Preservation in the 21st Century.  This is a topic I have been working on for many years.  You can see some of my writing on it here and here.

The National Register and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment are not culturally neutral tools.  For historical and pragmatic reasons, they privilege architecture and white male history.  Worse, those cultures oppressed in the past are forced to relive that oppression when told that their historic sites lack “integrity.”

Where “Invisible Man” was written in the 1940s, Manhattan.

Those who were second-class citizens had to make do with second-class facilities and now second-class landmarks.  Second-class status is perpetuated when we make minority landmarks live up to rules designed by and for the dominating culture.

Woolworth’s, designed by Adams and Adams in 1921.

The relevance of this struck me in regard to the State of Texas plan to demolish the Woolworth’s Building on Alamo Plaza, which emerged three months ago (see my blog about it here.)

This was a major building by a national chain at the major intersection of Alamo and Houston Streets.  The interior is heavily altered, but the exterior looks much as it did when built in 1921.  It is on the National Register and a local landmark.  But wait.  There’s more.

The San Antonio Woolworth’s desegregated its lunch counter on March 16, 1960, peacefully and without demonstration.  This was a first for the South.  The Greensboro, N.C. sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter had been only six weeks earlier.  It was a first for Woolworth’s, a national chain that was still being picketed nationwide and would not officially adopt an integrated lunch counter policy for months.

A few days later Jackie Robinson, in San Antonio, compared the event to his entry into Major League Baseball and said “It is a story that should be told around the world,” according to the New York Times.

Five other stores also integrated peacefully on that day, and none wanted to be called out.  The San Antonio Express and News reported:

“Speculation was that the flat refusal by the group to name the stores may stem from recent reports that some of the larger chain stores have ordered their managers not to integrate.

Also, a spokesman from one store said earlier that most of the businesses are for integration, but none of them want to be named as the first to make the move.”

Kress, one of the other stores.

Photos of the Woolworth’s store ran in the San Antonio News that day, and Kress was mentioned in the Light.  While some of the other stores’ locations survive, thanks to Greensboro, Woolworth’s remains forever front-and-center in civil rights history.

SO – what happens now?  Three months after they released their initial plan to demolish the Woolworth’s building, the Alamo is now hiring an architect to evaluate the buildings based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and their significance at the national state and local levels.

If you have experience with minority culture sites, you can see where this is going.

They have already released an illustration showing how the three building’s interior floors don’t line up.  That will be Reason 1, although it will be wrong, because in this particular case you could gut the interiors so they do line up – just like Joske’s did – and still have the exterior where the young African-American boy peering into the store was photographed on March 16, 1960.

Joske’s, November 2014.

And you can still interpret the long-lost mission wall and buildings inside – in the shade.

Reason 2 will be that the building does not have sufficient integrity on the interior.  This conclusion would require ignoring both the minority cultural context and current directives on evaluating interior integrity.  Recognizing its deficiencies in addressing cultural and historical sites, in December 2016 the National Park Service issued new guidance that encourages conserving “a space’s historic associations even though its component features and materials may be themselves so highly deteriorated that their integrity is irretrievably lost.”

Woolworth’s storefront on Houston Street – the markings on the ground show where mission buildings were.  Also where Travis lived during the siege.  Probably his slave Joe as well.  

Reason 3 will be this: If you demolish Woolworth’s you will still have other sites that witnessed peaceful integration in March, 1960.  That is true, and incredibly insulting.

It says your history can make do with fewer landmarks.  It says because you have Neisner’s, Kress’ and Green’s then you don’t need the only one people have heard of.

Erasing an authentic place for a reconstruction?

Whose history would be erased for whose?

Photo:  UTSA Special Collections Courtesy San Antonio Express News

Continue Reading

Last Stand at the Alamo

June 20, 2018 Blog, Interpretation, Technology, Texas Comments (0) 658

Are they making a state park in the middle of the city?  With a 130,000 square foot museum?  Fencing off the San Antonio’s most important public space?

This is the Piazza Navona, one of the world’s great urban spaces.  It sits on the site of the Roman Circus.  There is no need to recreate the circus, or wall it off.  The use of that space by the public connects it back 2000 thousand years and forward another 1000.  It is alive, not covered by glass or shrubs.  Alamo Plaza is our Piazza Navona.  They are almost the same size and scale.

Last year’s Master Plan envisioned glass walls around the Alamo Plaza.  This year’s Interpretive Plan reduces the walls to fences and shrouds them in shrubs, but the goal is the same.  Manage – and likely monetize – the space.  Since both plans have this attribute, the order is clearly coming from the client, not the designer.

No more sneaking in

Public meetings are going on now to take stock of this interpretive plan.  Bottom line?  Every San Antonian has the right to take a selfie in front of the Alamo at 1 A.M.

Or 7 A.M.

We at the San Antonio Conservation Society are circulating a petition focusing on access to the plaza and the buildings that face the Alamo. We have been fighting for these buildings since 2015 when the state bought them, and a year ago, we thought we had won!  Last year’s Master Plan had the Crockett, Palace and Woolworth’s Buildings saved as part of the new museum.  We supported that, along with the restoration of the chapel and Long Barracks, and the regrading of the plaza to create a more uniform space in the courtyard/battlefield.  The City Council approved it.  This year’s plan is different, and not in a good way.

Crockett Building on left, built the year before the Alamo was purchased by the state.

This is still the location of the big ‘ol museum.  For our presentation, they showed keeping the front half of the Crockett Building, which would create an appropriately reverent transition from the courtyard/battlefield to the high-tech wizardry they are promising inside.  They also had an illustration that demolished all three buildings.

The plan we saw removed the two other landmark buildings, including the Woolworth’s on the corner, site of the first voluntary peaceful integration of a lunch counter in the South (March 1960).  All three are landmarks locally and listed on the National Register.

You can interpret both the lunch counter and the long-lost west wall of the compound inside the building.  In the shade.  Why is it always either/or?  Designers know better.

The real irony here is that in the name of interpreting history, they suggest removing actual century-old historic buildings in order to replace them with modern versions of long-lost elements, like the wall.  Replacing real history with fake history?  Tossing actual historic fabric in the dumpster for a conjectural reconstruction?

The other big issue is access.  Last  year the plan closed Alamo Street in front of the Alamo.  Now they are closing part of Houston Street to the north, Crockett Street, and the bit of Alamo between Market and Commerce.  Access is limited to five gates.  The planners are adamant that the Battle of Flowers parade and Fiesta Flambeau can’t parade in front of the Alamo?  Why?  We have a fence around Wulff House and we still let the Granaderos y Damas de Galvez do their living history there once a year.  We take the fence down for a day and then put it back.  That’s not hard.  Why the bloodymindedness?

We okayed closing Alamo Street in front of the chapel a year ago, but now the closures have grown like kudzu and it seems there will be little northerly traffic through the downtown.

Unless they re-open Main Plaza.  Just sayin’.

I still don’t get why no one has proposed restoring the chapel to the way it was during the battle.

In addition to the irony of demolishing actual historical things for reproductions, there is the irony of wanting to get rid of the “tacky” theme park-styled attractions that occupy the Woolworth’s and Palace Buildings, as well as more to the south.  Yet walling off the plaza for heritage reenactment risks turning the whole thing into a kind of theme park like Colonial Williamsburg.

The amount of physical intervention proposed by this interpretive plan is really staggering.  This is the 21st century – you don’t need the sort of physical interventions people were doing in the 1930s (like Colonial Williamsburg).  Or 1960s.  This is NOW.  Augmented reality, programmable to the latest discoveries.  Clean up, regrade and reprogram.  No heavy machinery needed.

Looking at the key point where the March 6, 1836 battle turned – underneath the Post Office. 

Check out my previous blogs on how actual tourists will be experiencing historic sites tomorrow.  Don’t spend millions crafting something that will be silly in five years.  Y’all can’t outdo Piazza Navona.  That takes actual, continuous history, not a recreated circus.

Not the Alamo.  Also not Piazza Navona, but it is a Roman ruin.

AUGUST 2 UPDATE:

Still no timeline for a revised plan, but they are releasing an RFQ for an architect for the museum and commissioning someone to evaluate the buildings in light of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Treatment.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation weighed in with a letter urging preservation of the buildings.  The City Manager, Mayor, County Judge and Councilman Trevino have all gone public in support of preserving the buildings and keeping the plaza open, which are the two main points in our petition.  And our petition now has over 6,200 signatures!

OCTOBER 1 UPDATE

We now have more information on the importance of the Woolworth’s Building (see my blog here) and a new August 2018 The Alamo Plan.  It devotes six pages to the Crockett Block buildings, beginning with “Why can’t you retain the buildings on the west side of the site?” following with “This needs further study” and then “Retain multiple options until later in the design process” and then “Assess the Significance and Integrity” before two pages of structural diagrams showing how the floors don’t line up.

After reading these pages it is hard not hear Henry II shouting “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

My blog also deals with the integrity and structural issues FYI.

Petition drive now concluded with about 7,300 total.  City Council votes on October 18.

 

Continue Reading